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State Sen. Jim Gaughran

State Sen. Jim Gaughran said he received more calls than any other time in his career from people who could not get to PSEG. Photo from Gaughran's office

Following the power outage caused by Tropical Storm Isaias in early August, State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) conducted a survey of residents.

With 3,243 people responding, the survey indicated that people lost an average of $434.66. That compares with the maximum of $250 that PSEG Long Island said it would reimburse residents if they produced an itemized list and proof of loss.

Click here to see the full survey results

“I don’t keep my receipts,” Gaughran said in an interview after he publicly released the survey. “I throw mine out. I would imagine a lot of Long Islanders are keeping receipts” from their grocery purchases after their experience with the storm, the outage and the food losses, particularly amid the economic decline caused by the pandemic.

More than half the survey respondents, or over 58%, said they were not able to contact PSEG easily about their outage. At the time of the storm, PSEG recognized that its new communication system was ineffective.

Additionally, over two thirds, or 67 percent, of the residents in the survey said PSEG did not restore power before the estimated time.

In the two years he’s been in the senate, Gaughran said he’s never had this many responses to questions from residents about anything.

The Democratic senator highlighted how over 56% of residents were unaware of PSEG’s Critical Care Program, although those residents don’t believe anyone in their households would qualify. An additional 21% of the survey respondents didn’t know about the program and believed someone in their house might qualify.

The fact that more than half of the people who responded didn’t know about the program is “significant,” Gaughran said.

“Unacceptable” Storm Response

In response to a letter Gaughran sent to LIPA, CEO Thomas Falcone said he would “make sure that your survey results are appropriately reflected in the work streams for LIPA’s upcoming 90-day and 180-day investigative reports into PSEG Long Island’s storm response.”

Falcone called PSEG LI’s response to the storm “unacceptable” and said the LIPA Board has “insisted that the failures not be repeated.”

LIPA’s 30-day report said the computer system caused incorrect restoration estimates.

In its report about the storm response, LIPA concluded that “problematic management control issues,” combined with outside vendors who had “poorly defined service quality assurances” delivered an unsatisfactory customer experience.

A tree fell on a mail truck on Old Post Road in Setauket during Tropical Storm Isaias. Photo by John Broven

LIPA’s 2020 Internal Audit plan had previously scheduled a re-audit of the process to maintain customer lists to begin the fourth quarter of 2020. After reports of outdated customer lists during Isaias, LIPA accelerated that process, which started in September. The power authority will address that further in its 90 and 180 day Task Force reports.

The senator, who presented the results of his survey, also reiterated concerns he has about LIPA’s oversight of PSEG LI.

Gaughran said the Public Service Commission, which has considerably more direct oversight with other utilities around the state, doesn’t have the same authority with PSEG LI.

The PSC provides “recommendations” to LIPA and can “force them to pay money to their customers for lost food, lost business. [It] can do this with every utility except PSEG LI because the relationship is different.”

In responding to this concern, LIPA, in a statement, said the LIPA Reform Act provides the Department of Public Service with oversight responsibilities of LIPA and PSEG.

“LIPA’s storm oversight activities are in addition to DPS’s statutory role and DPS’s statutory role is the same for PSEG Long Island as it is for the state’s other utilities,” LIPA said in a statement.

The DPS provides independent recommendations to the LIPA Board of Trustees. The board has accepted every recommendation from the DPS, according to the statement.

LIPA said the only difference between the oversight of PSEG LI and other utilities in New York is that the DPS recommendations are to LIPA’s nine-member board, instead of the Public Service Commission.

The 30-day report includes 37 specific recommendations for PSEG Long Island to put in place by Oct. 15, LIPA said.

As for losses from the storm, LIPA said it secured direct reimbursement for customers through the customer spoilage reimbursement program. That could be as high as $500 per residential customer for food and medicine. PSEG LI is forgoing up to $10 million in compensation to fund this program.

LIPA “may look to pursue additional actions after [its] review and the Department of Public Service’s Investigation” is complete, LIPA said in a statement.

In his letter to Gaughran, Falcone said the 90-day and 180-day reports would have additional “actionable recommendations,” which the LIPA board would ask for independent verification and validation to make sure these recommendations have been implemented.

 

There will be a significant reduction in the number of people who can commemorate 9/11 this year, with many like the annual event in Shoreham being closed to the public due to COVID-19. File photo by Kyle Barr

TBR News Media reached out to several local elected officials at the national, state and county level to let them share their thoughts as we head into another commemoration of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

*This post will be updated as more officials respond to our questions.*

Sen. Gaughran Shares his Thoughts on 9/11

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) spoke with the TBR News Media on the eve of the 19th year since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

TBR: What do you think of when you reflect on 9/11 today?

Gaughran: When I think of 9/11, I obviously think of the heroism and the number of people I know who died. I certainly think of the police officers and the firefighters and the first responders who, without hesitancy, ran right into those buildings. Probably, some of them knew they were going to get killed. Maybe others figured it was another day when they were going to try to save people.

TBR: Who is the first person you think of in connection with 9/11?

On Sept. 11, 2019, Gov. Cuomo signs 9/11 bill, sponsored by N.Y. State Sen. Jim Gaughran.

Gaughran: Since I have been in the senate, the first person that comes to mind more than anyone else is Tim DeMeo, who is a constituent of mine, who was working for the Department of Environmental Conservation. He was in charge of dealing with oil spills, other contaminated sites and other hazardous clean ups. He was in Manhattan, driving over the Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn, when the plane crashed. He got a call, “You should turn around, go back to Manhattan. This is something we’ll have to deal with.”

He turned around. The second plane crashed. He was permanently injured by debris. He stayed there. The next day and the next day, throughout [the clean-up] with all the other heroes…

He worked alongside police and firefighters and others working at the scene. He got very sick. He was not entitled to the same disability retirement benefits that everybody else was who was there. The way the state legislature wrote the bill, it was written so it would [be for] uniformed employees. He was not one of them. He was in the Department of Environmental Conservation. There were eight or nine other people like him. One of the first who came to see me in my district office, he came and told me a story … He said, “everybody else has been helped and I haven’t.”

He has significant medical issues. Attempts to pass a bill never went anywhere. I ended up writing a bill. We passed a bill last year, on 9/11. The Governor [Andrew Cuomo (D)] signed the bill.

It’s my proudest achievement so far. It didn’t help as many people as some of the other legislation I dealt with. I’m proudest of [that bill]. All these people were just as much heroes as everyone else. They were left out. New York was ignoring them.

TBR: How would you compare the heroism of first responders who raced to the burning buildings in Manhattan to the heroism of first responders and health care workers who have dealt with the ongoing unknowns and challenges from the pandemic?

Gaughran: I think it’s basically the same. A nurse or a doctor or a firefighter or an EMT who picks up somebody and puts them in an ambulance and brings them to the hospital are doing this knowing they could easily contract COVID and face the same issues that people they are trying to help are facing. The risks are the same. Running into a burning building is a more immediate risk. Dealing with a sick COVID patient, who may give you the disease, you’re facing a risk that potentially could cost you your life.

TBR: Do you think the divisiveness of today will ease during 9/11?

Gaughran: I would hope so. I remember on 9/11, watching George W. Bush at the site, that iconic image, with the bull horn and everything. That wasn’t that long after the election. My kids were young. They paid attention to everything. [They said] “dad, you didn’t vote for him.” This is a moment when we all have to stand behind him. It was a different world then. It’s hard to get people to agree to the same thing today. The president we have now is not going out of his way to try to create national unity.

I voted for Al Gore, but Bush did push for national unity after that, including visiting mosques, to make it clear that even though the terrorists who killed us were of a certain background, the folks who were living in the United States who happened to be Muslim are patriotic citizens like everyone else.

Rep. Lee Zeldin Shares his Thoughts on 9/11

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) responded to questions from TBR News Media on the eve of the 19th year since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

TBR: What do you think of when you reflect on 9/11 today?

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. Flie photo by Alex Petroski

Zeldin: The bravery, selflessness, fearlessness, and resolve of first responders, Americans, and our entire nation as a whole. When so many of us think about 9/11, we remember exactly where we were that day, when ordinary Americans became extraordinary heroes. We vividly remember what we heard, what we saw and how we felt. We remember first responders running towards danger at the greatest possible risk to their own lives.

While our memories of those moments have not faded, most importantly, neither has our resolve to rise stronger than ever before. New Yorkers remain committed, especially this year, to remember, honor and exemplify those Americans, who in the face of unconscionable evil, were the very best of who we are.

TBR:  Who is the first person that comes to mind in connection with 9/11?

Zeldin: It’s difficult to choose just one person who comes to mind, but with the full permanent funding of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund signed into law last year, one of the first people who comes to mind is Luis Alvarez. While he wasn’t with us to witness the legislation he fought so hard for signed into law, he spent his final weeks with us continuing the fight until the very end so other 9/11 first responders wouldn’t have to.

TBR: In the context of the pandemic, is 9/11 overlooked?

Zeldin: Even in the midst of a pandemic, the commitment of New Yorkers to Never Forget, as we’ve seen with the Tribute in Light and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, underscores how dedicated New Yorkers are to the memory of those who died on that day and the so many who have passed since due to 9/11 related illnesses.

TBR: How would you compare the heroism of first responders who raced to the burning buildings in Manhattan to the heroism of first responders and health care workers who have dealt with the ongoing unknowns and challenges from the pandemic?

Zeldin: The same bravery in the face of clear danger and uncertainty that drove so many first responders on 9/11 to save countless lives at the expensive of their own, is the same bravery that has spurred so many of our local first responders and health care workers to serve throughout the novel outbreak of coronavirus.

A large tree in front of Emma S. Clark Memorial Library was no match for Hurricane Isaias. Photo by Pam Botway

Politicians with long memories and short fuses demanded answers from PSEG and LIPA for the communications problems and the slow restoration of power after Tropical Storm Isaias, even as they lamented how this wasn’t supposed to happen again after the long recovery from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D) said LIPA and PSEG were inconsiderate with their spoiled food policy. Photo by Kyle Barr

In a full-day hearing of the combined New York State Assembly and Senate, local politicians including Assemblymen Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Doug Smith (R-Holbrook) and Senators James Gaughran (D) and Todd Kaminsky (D-Rockville Center) questioned everyone from the chairman of the Public Service Commission, John Rhodes, to the President of PSEG Long Island, Daniel Eichhorn, and the CEO of LIPA, Thomas Falcone.

“We were told after Superstorm Sandy that things would change, but they did not,” Kaminsky said. “Why do we pay some of the highest electric and internet bills in the country when we couldn’t reach a provider, when the information we got was inaccurate? Why is it so hard to receive a reimbursement? Who is funding those reimbursements?”

Indeed, Rhodes, of the Public Service Commission, said he wanted answers from numerous utilities throughout the state and that the commission was not going to leave “any tool on the table.”

That proved small consolation for politicians and their constituents, some of whom were without power for over a week and many of whom had to throw out the entire contents of their powerless refrigerators and freezers. That is an especially problematic proposition in the aftermath of the pandemic, when budgets are tight and the recession caused by the lockdown has cut jobs in numerous industries.

Englebright questioned why PSEG is reimbursing customers for food spoilage only if their power was out for at least 72 hours. The reimbursed amount totaled $150 if the customers didn’t have receipts and could be as high as $250 if they had receipts, photographs, a canceled check or a credit card bill.

Englebright suggested the timeframe should allow for food spoiled after about 48 hours and wondered why the utilities had not settled on a longer time frame. The Setauket assemblyman wondered whether PSEG believed food “spoils more slowly on Long Island than any other place.”

Eichhorn said the 72 hour threshold defined numerous factors in a storm and “aligns with some of our processes.” The three day time frame “triggers certain things.”

Falcone added that the 72 hours defined a major storm.

“That’s not a health definition,” Englebright countered, but, rather was a “storm definition. That doesn’t necessarily reflect what somebody’s suffering from if their refrigerator is out for perhaps even half of that length of time.”

PSEG’s Eichhorn acknowledged that the company’s response to the storm was “not in line with our expectations.” He said the company is conducting its own reports to figure out what went wrong and to make changes and improvements.

“I’m not here to make excuses,” Eichhorn said. “We own the experience our customers had and we are committed to fixing it.”

Kaminsky asked whether PSEG had tested its system prior to the storm. Eichhorn responded that the company did a simulation in June and that PSEG passed that test.

That passing grade, despite the performance a few months later, will be a focus of PSEG’s own review, as well as a review conducted by LIPA.

“The most relevant stress test was the storm and [the PSEG system] was obviously inadequate,” Falcone said. The systems were “not robust enough” to allow customers to report power failures to PSEG.

On behalf of their constituents, politicians also lamented the shifting timeline for restoring power. In several cases, representatives at the virtual meeting recounted how residents spoke with people in utility trucks or representatives from PSEG who told them their power was on when their constituents were still struggling through the ongoing outage.

In an interview, Gaughran expressed his frustration with the utility arrangement on Long Island, where LIPA oversees PSEG, while the Public Service Commission has no direct authority or recourse.

“The Public Service Commission cannot fine them or sanction them,” Gaughran said. “They’re totally out of the loop.”

Sen. James Gaughran and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory officials at an Aug. 18 press conference. He has called for additional oversight of both LIPA and PSEG Photo from Sen. Gaughran’s office

Reflecting the concerns of his fellow senators and assemblymen and assemblywomen, Gaughran wondered what the utilities would do to protect Long Islanders in the event that another storm, with potentially stronger winds and heavier rain, impacted the region.

Gaughran said he would like to ensure that PSEG and LIPA don’t tap into a storm reserve fund, which is a collection of money set aside with rate payers money.

“The language in that fund is clear: they can’t access that for any part of the cost” from mismanagement or inadequate storm response, Gaughran said. “If you have an out-of-town crew sitting at the side of the road for hours waiting for instructions … those extra costs are costs of incompetence.”

Gaughran introduced a bill that would give the Public Service Commission the authority to investigate and sanction and fine the company and force them to take corrective action.

To prevent this kind of communication failure from happening again, Eichhorn said the company was conducting reviews of its computer system, which includes its outage management system and the telephone and digital experiences.

“We have made interim changes during and since the storm,” Eichhorn said. “We are continuing to do an after-action review to identify additional short and long term changes to ensure we’re ready for the next storm.”

Falcone added that LIPA would “go back and see why the system failed. We are hiring independent people to redo the stress test.”

Assemblyman Smith asked whether PSEG knew that National Grid employees weren’t a part of the storm response crews, even though people with experience were on Long Island.

“National Grid [employees] were not used during the storm,” Eichhorn said. “That will be included in the review.”

State Sen. John Flanagan. File photo

On June 8, the New York State Senate voted to clear several police reform bills in the wake of Minneapolis man George Floyd, who was killed in police custody, and the massive wave of protests that have swept across New York, the city and Long Island. 

The bills ranged from a repeal of 50-a, a civil rights law that protected the personnel records of cops, firefighters and correction officers from public scrutiny, to banning the police’ use of chokeholds to restrain alleged perps.

Some bills received universal bipartisan support, while others were divided on party lines. Some votes stick out. All Long Island senators voted yes to bills that police must report the discharge of a service weapon immediately, and all voted yes to banning the use of chokeholds by police. Still, Republicans came together against a special office for investigating incidents of death of people when in police custody and against 50-a.

Sen. John Flanagan (R-Northport),, the senate minority leader, said in a statement that while there is no excuse for police brutality, the repeal of 50-a “denies due process for our law enforcement officers whose records already were available under a court’s discretion,” and provides “false accusations” made against officers.

It is not a reason to vilify and punish every man and woman in law enforcement who serves to protect and serve our communities in New York, nor should it be a reason to sow division,” he said in a statement.

Gaughran, a Democrat, voted yes to all reform bills.

Our nation is at a pivotal moment in its history and people on Long Island have taken to the streets to peacefully demand change,” Gaughran said in a statement. “This package of justice reform legislation is important to ensuring trust between the brave men and women of law enforcement and the communities they work tirelessly to keep safe.”

State Sen. Ken LaValle was one of only two senators to vote no on a bill that confirms the police are required to see to the medical or mental health needs of a person in custody.

LaValle’s office did not return requests for comment about his votes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has signed off on a majority of the bills so far, and has also signed an executive order mandating police all over the state come up with plans to overhaul their departments or face loss of state funding.

  • Senate Bill S.8496: repealing Civil Rights Law 50-a, which helped shield the records of law enforcement. With the repeal, citizens and groups can make Freedom of Information Law requests for those records, which will not reveal the private information of individuals.
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted no. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted no.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.2574B: creating an Office of Special Investigation within the Department of Law, under the Attorney General, to investigate and potentially prosecute, if warranted, any incident of a person whose death was caused by a police officer or peace officer. 
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted no. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted no.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.3253B: clarifies that a person not under arrest or in custody of police has the right to record police activity and to maintain custody and control of that recording, and of any property or instruments used to record police activities. 
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted yes. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.6670B: the bill, also called the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act,” prohibits the use of chokeholds by law enforcement and establishes the crime of aggravated strangulation as a Class-C felony. 
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted yes. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.3595B: Establishes the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office within the Department of Law to review, study, audit and make recommendations regarding operations, policies, programs and practices of local law enforcement agencies. 
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted no. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted no.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.1830C: Also called the Police Statistics and Transparency Act, will require courts to compile and publish racial and other demographic data of all low level offenses, including misdemeanors and violations. The bill also requires police departments to submit annual reports on arrest-related deaths to be submitted to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, governor and legislature.
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted yes. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.8492: This legislation essentially gives an individual right of action when another person summons a police or peace officer on them without reason in cases when there was no reason to suspect a crime or when they were not presenting an imminent threat to person or property.
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted yes. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.6601A: The bill amends the Civil Rights Law by adding a new section that affirms New Yorkers’ right to medical and mental health attention while in police custody.
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted no. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.8493: Creates a New York State Police Body-Worn Cameras Program which will direct state police officers with body-worn cameras that are to be used any time an officer conducts a patrol and prescribes mandated situations when the camera is to be turned on and recording.
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted yes. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.
  • Senate Bill S.2575B: This legislation, sponsored by Senator Jamaal Bailey, will require state and local law enforcement officers, as well as peace officers, to report, within six hours, when they discharge their weapon where a person could have been struck, whether they were on or off duty.
    • Sen. Ken LaValle (R) voted yes. 
    • Sen. John Flanagan (R) voted yes.
    • Sen. Jim Gaughran (D) voted yes.

Babylon Supervisor Rich Schaffer points to a chart showing the impact discovery law changes have had on small municipalities. Photo by David Luces

Town supervisors in Suffolk County say recent criminal justice reform has caused “unintended consequences” to municipalities and local code enforcement. They are asking the state to exempt small municipalities from new guidelines, among other things. 

The issue they have is with the state’s new discovery provisions, which require names and contact information for complaints to be turned over within 15 days of arraignment. In turn, it has eliminated anonymity, which many municipalities rely on when it comes to handling code violations. 

“You’re not going to call, you’re not going to complain, what does that do for the quality of life?”

— Ed Romaine

Rich Schaffer (D), Town of Babylon supervisor and chair of the county Democratic committee, said at a March 5 press conference they usually receive a lot of anonymous tips from concerned residents but have noticed many are not willing to come forward with the new changes. 

“They don’t want to put their names down, and quite frankly we don’t want to [either],” he said. “We want to be able to go after the offenders and educate them on how to clean up their act and be a good neighbor.”

A letter signed by all of the county’s town supervisors was sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in January. The group said with the new standards in how case information is turned over to the courts, it means there are currently no distinctions between a homicide case and a “municipal code violation for high grass.” 

The supervisors said the reform was rushed through the legislature and didn’t give municipalities enough time to formulate a public education campaign. In addition, the changes hurt them on a local level because the state “got involved in things that we didn’t need their involvement in,” Schaffer said.

Supervisors also complained the requirement for after issuing a summons, a court date must be set within 20 days. Officials said it used to take a month to process cases, but now there are four additional “hoops to jump through” to process a complaint. A case could take up to two years to be resolved.

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said the criminal justice reform has had a “chilling effect on code enforcement.” 

“So now, if you live next to a guy that has a house with two illegal apartments and four or five unregistered vehicles and trash on the property, if you call, we are obligated by state law to tell the guy next door that you called,” he said. “You’re not going to call, you’re not going to complain, what does that do for the quality of life?”

The four supervisors called on the state Legislature to pass a bill that would allow townships to handle their own code enforcement cases and reinstate anonymity.  

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) and state Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) are proposing bills that would allow anonymity for those reporting local code violations, let municipalities take these cases out of district court and allow them to create their own administrative bureau. 

Chad Lupinacci (R), Town of Huntington supervisor, said many of the problems discussed can be eliminated if municipalities had their own administrative bureau. Huntington is one of three municipalities in the state to have one. 

“The bureau should be up and running sometime in May,” he said. “Code enforcement officers, instead of having to comply with these changes, will be able to just enforce the code and ensure that neighborhoods are safer.”

Brookhaven assistant attorney David Moran said they will work in compliance with the law but called it an “unfunded mandate” with no real direction given how to be in compliance. 

Schaffer said he’s volunteering Babylon to be the guinea pig regarding not following the new law and seeing what comes out of it. 

“I’d like to be the test case to challenge the system,” he said.

Local elected officials and representatives from Uber announced a new initiative called, Long Island Safe Ride, to combat drunk driving during Thanksgiving week Nov. 22. Photo from Sen. Gaughran's office

Thanksgiving Eve remains one of the busiest and deadliest nights of the year for accidents from drunk driving. The holiday sees increases in both drunk driving accidents and fatalities. To combat the issue this Thanksgiving, New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), Nassau County Executive Laura Curran (D) and Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas joined Uber to announce a new initiative, Long Island Safe Ride, to combat drunk driving during Thanksgiving week. Long Island Safe Ride is a multipronged approach that will combine discounts for rides home with increased law enforcement efforts to deter drinking and driving.

“Long Island Safe Ride is a multifaceted, private-public partnership to remind everyone that drinking and driving have no place on our roadways,” Gaughran said. “This initiative, with discounts on Uber rides and increased law enforcement efforts under the leadership of County Executive Laura Curran and District Attorney Madeline Singas will help ensure our roadways are safe this holiday week.”

Under Long Island Safe Ride, Uber will be offering a $10 discount on rides home for Thanksgiving Eve to prevent driving under the influence. Law enforcement will be launching increased patrols and checkpoints to ensure roadways are safe from intoxicated drivers.

To take advantage of the Uber program, use the code SAFERIDENY19 at the Uber app between 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27, to 3 a.m. Thursday morning, Nov. 28. The $10 discount works anywhere in New York State. Uber is picking up the cost.

Democrat challenger Jim Gaughran upset incumbent Carl Marcellino by winning the race for New York state's 5th Senate District. Photo by Alex Petroski

New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) and the Senate Democratic majority passed a package of legislation that will expand veterans’ benefits and ease transition back to civilian life. These bills propose to provide veterans with a toll-free hotline on services and benefits, broaden property tax exemptions, make voting more accessible for military voters and implement additional employment benefits and academic credits. Passage of these bills comes in honor of the annual Fort Drum Day, which welcomes service members to the state Senate chamber. 

 “These bills affirm our commitment to providing military service members full resources and opportunities that they have earned,” Gaughran said. “It is our duty to support our active duty personnel during their time of service, and continue to support our veterans when they return home and transition back to civilian life.” 

The legislation advanced by the Senate Majority includes: 

● Active Duty Property Tax Exemptions: This bill, S.2930A, sponsored by the chair of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa), will provide qualified active duty personnel a property tax exemption. 

● Expanding Licensed Veterans Employment: This bill, S.2113, sponsored by Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Jamaica), will permit veterans who are licensed to practice a profession in another jurisdiction to practice their profession in New York State while their application to practice their profession in New York State is being processed. 

● Veterans Help and Crisis Line: This bill, S.2283A, sponsored by Sen. Sanders, will provide a toll-free telephone number for use as a help and crisis line to assist veterans. 

● Increase of Real Property Tax Exemption for Dual Veteran Households: This bill, S.2570, introduced by Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), will increase the Alternative Veterans Real Property tax exemption when two qualifying veterans reside in the same household. 

● Veteran Academic Credit: This bill, S.2741A, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), will allow full-time undergraduate students enrolled at state-operated institutions to receive academic credit for their military service or training.       

● Expanding Veteran Credits on Civil Service Appointments: This bill, S.3647, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Bay Ridge), will amend Section 6 of Article 5 of the New York State constitution to eliminate the requirement that a veteran must have served in time of war, and allow for all individuals who have served in the armed forces to receive credits for civil service appointments and promotions.

● Military Voters in School District Elections: This bill, S.5184, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Port Chester), will provide military voters the opportunity to vote in school district elections by allowing them to return their absentee ballot by postal mail.

Elected officials, scientists and environmentalists filled the legislative auditorium of the William H. Rogers Building last year to provide testimony against offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Maria Hoffman

State legislators are trying to ensure the federal government doesn’t murk up New York’s coastal waters.

Both the New York State Assembly and Senate passed legislation Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 to prohibit oil and natural gas drilling in New York’s coastal areas. The legislative action comes a year after hundreds of Long Island residents attended a public hearing at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Smithtown to voice concerns relating to discussions on the federal level over potential drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Assemblyman Steve Englebright addresses the crowd before a hearing last year concerning the proposal of offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Maria Hoffman

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the Assembly environmental conservation committee chair, was one of the legislators who hosted last year’s Smithtown hearing. The assemblyman said in a statement those who attended the hearing unanimously condemned the federal government’s proposal to drill for oil and gas in open waters.

“This legislation will safeguard our water and shores from the dangers of fossil fuel exploration and drilling, and will support our efforts to move our state toward cleaner and renewable energy sources,” Englebright said.

The legislation would prohibit the use of state-owned underwater coastal lands for oil and natural gas drilling; prevent the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of General Services from authorizing leases which would increase oil or natural gas production from federal waters; and prohibit the development of infrastructure associated with exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas from New York’s coastal waters, according to a press release from Englebright’s office.

The new legislation will reaffirm the state’s coastal management practices to ensure the protection of endangered and threatened species, along with tourism and recreational and commercial fishing industries, according to Englebright.

“Our largest industry in New York, and especially in coastal New York, is tourism,” Englebright said. “Oil and gas exploration is incompatible with tourism. We’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the world where oil and gas exploration near recreation areas and near active fisheries has occurred. We don’t want those kinds of chaos to descend upon our economy or our state.”

“We’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the world where oil and gas exploration near recreation areas and near active fisheries has occurred. We don’t want those kinds of chaos to descend upon our economy or our state.”

— Steve Englebright

The legislation updates New York State laws that are decades old, according to a press release from state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport).

“Offshore drilling is the single largest threat to the sustainability of Long Island’s environment,” Gaughran said in a statement. “I am proud that under [Senate] Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins [D-Yonkers], New York State is moving toward protecting our natural resources and banning senseless proposals to drill off our beautiful coast.”

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who was the original lead sponsor of the legislation in the state Senate, said he urges the governor to sign the bill.

“We have painstakingly worked to preserve and protect our pristine waters, and we certainly do not want to imperil all of our efforts to maintain clean water by allowing drilling off our shoreline,” LaValle said.

Kevin McAllister, founding president of Sag Harbor-based nonprofit Defend H2O, said restricting oil and gas exploration off the coast is important as the drilling for fossil fuels negatively impacts the environment. He said it’s critical for states along the entire Eastern Seaboard to follow suit, and he urges Cuomo to enlist coastal solidarity.

“If rising seas, ocean acidification, killer floods aren’t sobering enough, don’t overlook a legacy of regret with oil extraction and transport,” he said. “Santa Barbara oil spill, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon all inflicted massive damages to the marine and the coastal environment over thousands of square miles. In the oil industry, accidents happen. The best way to prevent another catastrophe is to close the door on further exploration.”

Assembly members had voting on their minds.

Both houses passed a package of bills Jan. 14 which are currently awaiting the signatures of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Legislators said the goal of the bills is to reform the state’s current electoral process to make voting easier and to reduce the influence of special interest in elections, according to a press release from the office of state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket).

“Our vote to eliminate barriers will make voting more accessible to all state residents.”

— Steve Englebright

“It’s a good day for democracy in New York,” Englebright said in the release. “Our vote to eliminate barriers will make voting more accessible to all state residents.”

One piece of legislation will establish a nine-day early voting period starting in the 2019 general election. The period will include two weekends to allow voters to cast their votes in person, also before any primary or special election. This is what 35 other states and Washington, D.C., already do.

“New York is no longer behind the rest of the country,” said state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport).

Gaughran said many residents have told him that there have been times they have been unable to vote due to being stuck in the city with work or with inclement weather delaying trains. He added early voting would benefit all parties and races.

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said in a statement if the bills become law there will not only be more time to cast votes but more clarity on primary day as well as more transparency.

“In today’s society, with so many people working long hours, combined with active lifestyles, the system needs to change to make it easier for individuals to participate in elections,” LaValle said in a release.

Another bill will change absentee voting no earlier than November 2021. Currently, a voter can cast an absentee ballot if they know they will be unable to do so Election Day due to physical illness or disability. An amendment to the New York State Constitution would allow for “no excuse” absentee voting.

“In today’s society, with so many people working long hours, combined with active lifestyles, the system needs to change to make it easier for individuals to participate in elections.”

— Ken LaValle

State legislators also passed bills to combine the state primary with the federal non-presidential primary. If Cuomo signs it into law, these primaries will take place in June. Gaughran said the move would save taxpayer dollars, and it ensures the NYS election laws comply with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which helps in the efficiency of military members serving overseas and citizens who live abroad voting in U.S. elections. Gaughran said he thinks combining primaries will help those who are currently overseas vote as easily for local offices as well as federal.

Another piece of legislation will allow voter registration to be allowed up to Election Day instead of 10 days or before. New York State voters will need to vote on the act as a constitutional amendment. Another bill would automatically transfer a voter’s registration when they move within New York state instead of residents needing to update when they move from one county to another.

The state legislators approved a bill that will require voter registration forms to include a space for preregistering for those 16 and 17 years of age. LaValle said, as a former teacher and principal, the bill was a meaningful one for him for young people to stay involved in the political process.

“It is my hope that when the measures become law, more people will take advantage of the opportunity to vote, allow more of voices to be heard, and thereby strengthen our government in the process,” LaValle said.

Both houses passed legislation to restrict the LLC loophole, which allows LLCs to make campaign contributions as individuals, and enables one person or corporation that owns multiple LLCs to funnel donations to a single candidate or committee. If Cuomo signs the bill, LLC campaign contributions will be limited to a $5,000 aggregate — the same limit that exists for corporations — and would require the disclosure of all owners of the LLC, whether direct or indirect.